In light of celebrities such as Russell Brand attending an anti-austerity demonstration in London, the question was asked whether figures such as himself were helpful in the fight for equality. In this debate, I argued that they were. The opposing side is also below.
This was originally published on the 7th July 2015 on the Impact website, the University of Nottingham’s student magazine.
Yes. Famous people bring something that the rest of us can’t: their high profiles. In the same way that celebrities in adverts can still make us want to buy something we didn’t think we needed, they can also shine a spotlight on social issues not covered in the mainstream media.
Take Russell Brand’s victory in his campaign for the New Era estate in Hackney. They defied Westbrook Partners, a huge American firm which had bought the estate and planned to treble rent prices. Yes, this campaign already existed before Brand’s involvement, but it can’t be denied that the attention he brought helped them in their eventual triumph over the billion-dollar company. You don’t have to agree with everything he says to realise he’s making tangible social change.
The Gurkhas would not have won settlement rights in the UK if their campaign was not fronted by Joanna Lumley. Emma Watson would not have been able to stand on the UN stage and cause influential figures to pledge support for gender equality were she not a famous actress.
Russell Brand may have been accused of betraying his followers at a recent anti-austerity protest, but I don’t doubt that he really does want to make a difference. To say he is just doing this to promote his image is to forget that before that Paxman interview, Brand was already one of the biggest stars on both sides of the Atlantic and well-loved by many. His new ‘revolution’ phase seems to have churned up more vitriol and mockery from all sides of the media than when he was portrayed as a sex-obsessed, drug-taking comedian who made some risky choices in the public eye. He hasn’t done this to boost his image. He might actually want to help people worse off than him.
Charlotte Church, who was at the same anti-austerity march as Brand, is the latest on the receiving end of that lazy term: champagne socialism. This is too readily accepted as a valid criticism. If this argument held any water, we would have to apply it to the general public, who donate close to £100 million on Comic Relief night to those worse off than them: “You aren’t struggling like them so have no right to want to help.” Of course this would be a ridiculous thing to say. We all have the capacity to feel for other people who are suffering. Call it what you will – empathy, solidarity, even guilt – it’s human.
Everybody has a responsibility to help others in our society. This includes the rich and the famous. I understand that grassroots movements can be just as effective in local communities as global charities fronted by the biggest celebrities. But to forego this huge resource we have – rich people who actually give a damn – and instead perpetuate the ‘us and them’ mentality, is a massive waste. Some people care beyond simply retweeting or sharing the latest petition or video. They can bring about real social change. Let them take action. It’s those who have the means to make actual change, but sit back and do nothing, who are guilty of holding back social equality.
Russell Brand, he really is quite the enigma. While he boasts the vocabulary of a fraught student, bullshitting an academic paper, he also uses adorably nuanced grammar, presumably to prove he’s down with the people. It’s a bamboozling mixture of stereotyped cockney and overuse of the synonyms tool on Microsoft Word.
So perhaps when a fellow protester at the anti-austerity march in London on June 20th told Brand he had ‘no fucking place here’, a valid point was made. Contrived image aside, Brand has proven he is flaky and unreliable in his infamous change of heart which suddenly saw him canvass votes for Labour. In his video outing himself as a Milifan, Brand told subscribers that you can’t just ‘bah humbug’ your way through a general election, ‘you’ve got to have a look at it.’ How stupid of us! Here we were, eagerly subscribing to all your anti-voting advocacy, failing to use our eyes to look at the general election.
All Russell Brand has really shown is that he’s as spineless as the politicians he’s taught millions of viewers to loathe. With a £15 million net worth, he really can afford to say whatever he likes, since he’ll always have an extremely comfortable life and the promise of inexhaustible wealth to fall back on. He has all the insistence of (and warped enthusiasm for) widespread angst and upset and no authentic experience of it – or not recently anyway. Although Brand had what has been described as a difficult childhood, he has since become sheltered from the struggles he claims to have real insight into. You can’t adopt the potent feelings of a protest march and then then use them for your own benefit and publicity. If anything, he’s increased the rift between himself and those he supposedly represents.
We shouldn’t be amplifying the voices of privileged idiots like Brand. He’s a hypocrite and has used his influence to potentially remove our right to vote by instructing us not to register – only to dramatically change his tune. It’s exasperating to watch him try to discourage people from affecting change in the most accessible way they have – by voting. We would do better to listen to and magnify the genuine voices and experiences of those upon whom government cuts are actually imposed in order to challenge problematic policies and work towards real positive change.